Are we really going to do this again, Fourth Estate? Are we seriously going to let a far-right propagandist who’s a close buddy of Steve Bannon frame the discussion of the (for now) leading Democratic contender for president? We went down this road in 2015-16, and I had thought that most everyone on the sane side of the fever swamps agreed that it was a shameful moment for the media. So why would we repeat it?
I refer here to Peter Schweizer, whose “investigative journalism” in 2015 just happened to target Hillary Clinton and today just happens to target Joe Biden. What a coincidence!
Virtually none of his allegations about Clinton back then were true. I don’t know all the facts on Biden. The Ukraine allegations have been credibly debunked. On the China stuff relating to Biden’s son Hunter, I don’t know. If there’s something to it, then so be it. But we know enough about Schweizer’s method to be extremely skeptical of any claim by him.
I reviewed Clinton Cash in 2015 and summarized Schweizer’s method. Basically, he does just enough work that resembles journalism that he can sucker some people into believing that what he produces is real journalism. He procures documents and gathers facts, or “facts,” and he writes in the traditional way, so it reads like journalism.
But if you read closely and critically, you see that he just asserts that these facts surely mean X. Real investigative reporters—and I am not one, obviously, but I’ve known a lot of them, and some of the best, like the late, great Wayne Barrett—then make dozens of phone calls to the people involved. Anybody who’s done any amount of document-based reporting knows that things are often not as simple as a certain, highly selected set of facts makes them appear to be, and that you have to talk to the principals to learn the motivations that were behind the words on paper.
Schweizer doesn’t do this, and he gets stuff wrong. The most notable whopper in the Clinton book was an allegation that she changed from an anti- to a pro-India position on a nuclear agreement with the United States after Indian donors contributed to the Clinton Foundation. But Hillary had been for the deal the whole time. Another big Schweizer scoop, the Uranium One story, was a lie from front to back.
There was a time when Schweizer produced work that warranted examination (he also scrutinized Republicans sometimes). But that changed with the release of his Clinton book, which was treated as news at the time but was half-baked opposition research, a catalog of things that could be bad without any of the work to, you know, answer the question.
Which brings us to the real difference between Schweizer and actual journalists: Actual journalists want to report the truth, whether it implicates or exonerates the subject of their research. Schweizer wants to re-elect Donald Trump. Funny thing, he sees no corruption around Trump. Democrats’ attempts to subpoena Trump-related Deutsche Bank records, he recently said, amount to a “fishing expedition.”
How real journalists can grant him any credibility is mind-boggling. The only thing about Schweizer that mainstream journalism ought to be interested in is where he gets the money to finance these projects and the extent to which he coordinates with other far-right and pro-Trump figures to get his lies into circulation. In the case of Clinton Cash, the money came from the Mercer family, through a foundation Schweizer set up with Steve Bannon.
In standard journalistic shorthand, these people are referred to as conservatives. But let’s be clear about this. They are not conservatives. George Will is a conservative—a classic Burkean Tory. Ronald Reagan was a conservative. These people are way, way to the right of that. Bannon is a neo-fascist. Go look up some of what he’s been saying about Pope Francis. There’s a tradition of this kind of far-right attack on reform-minded popes. If you know about Marcel Lefebvre, you know what I’m talking about. Lefebvre despised the reforms initiated by John XXIII and later went off and formed his own little order in Switzerland, ordaining a Holocaust denier. He defended both the Vichy government as a young man and, later in life, Jean-Marie le Pen. Bannon joined Marine le Pen at a Front National party congress last spring.
I don’t know if Schweizer is a neo-fascist, but the fact he founded a nonprofit with Bannon and is evidently his friend tells us plenty. He has a nakedly obvious political agenda. It could not be clearer. He wants to raise dramatic allegations against Democrats who look like they can win the White House.
He’s not remotely interested in the truth. The cesspool in which he swims doesn’t reward the truth. It rewards ginned-up “scandal.” It punishes the truth. David Brock learned this 20 years ago, also pertaining to Hillary Clinton. Then on the right, Brock got a fat advance from a right-wing editor to go out and prove that Hillary was a corrupt lesbian and so on. Instead, to his surprise, he found her to be interesting and in fact a somewhat sympathetic figure, and he produced a balanced and so far as I know accurate portrait. He was drummed out of the movement.
In 2015, nobody thought it would matter. Everybody thought Hillary would win. This time around, everyone should understand the stakes. Five more years with Trump as president could leave the Constitution in tatters. Saying that is not a liberal position. It’s an American position. And insofar as it is journalism’s job to defend the people’s interests against those who abuse power, it’s a profoundly journalistic position. Journalists should embrace it without apology.